After an overnight sail from the capital Tarawa, we entered the lagoon of one of Kiribati’s outer islands called Abaiang. It’s always somewhat tricky entering a lagoon as the opening of the reef (which divides it from the open ocean) can be quite narrow and, as is the case with most remote islands of the South Pacific, is usually unmarked with buoys or lights. Cedric, the captain and owner of Thira, a 36 foot Jenneau sailing vessel that I had been on already two months since Fiji, always had either myself or Peter, the other ship mate, go up to the bow with a pair of polarized sunglasses for a visual check of any rocks that seemed too close for comfort. This despite having all the modern technology on his boat such as GPS and depth reading instruments. “The last thing you want to do is have your keel hit the reef and possibly destroy your boat, so you take every precaution you can” he said… especially true since this vessel was his home and mode of transport for the two year sailing odyssey he was doing across the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Once we crossed the opening of the reef, the heavy swells of the open ocean subsided and we welcomed the calm turquoise waters of the large lagoon. The green line on the horizon at the other end of the lagoon signaled the skinny strip of land on this atoll and a lone radio tower indicated where the village was located. Off the starboard side, I saw a shadow and shouted quickly to the boys at what seemed to be a couple of manta rays. We killed the engine, quickly put on a mask and snorkel and jumped into the water and watched them for several minutes, flying gracefully underwater with their enormous wings.
After dropping the anchor a hundred metres from the shore, we inflated the dinghy, put the outboard motor on and made our way to the beach. Several curious children came running out to greet us. There were a few dozen thatched huts parallel to the shore under rows of coconut trees… the classic image of an unspoiled tropical paradise. I was particularly excited at seeing several traditional outrigger canoes on the beach and noticed how each island and Pacific nation had different designs for their dugout hulls and amas.
I met Tekieri, who was sitting in front of his house that was facing the lagoon. When I told him that I was from Vancouver, he nodded with a smile and said he remembered being impressed by the snow capped mountains overlooking the city. It was actually not surprising as many young men from these island nation become merchant marines for several years, travelling all over the world on massive tankers. After several years overseas, he decided to return to his native island Abaiang, get married and have children. He pointed to his large hut thatched with pandanus and coconut fronds and to his canoe and said, “Every day, I go out and fish for my food… the simple life, it’s all I need, it’s what I love”. I must admit, I envied him at that moment in time.
As we planned on staying several days, I asked him if I could put my hammock up nearby and I ended up sleeping there a few nights. It was nice to get off the boat and have my own space for a few days. After showing me a few songs on the ukulele, I was invited to go out fishing in his canoe. He set up the sail ( a patchwork of blue tarps) and off we were in the warm wind, to the centre of the lagoon, to a certain reef which, I was told, was a good spot for octopus. Being a wooden canoe, one must bail the water out constantly. I watched Tekieri and was impressed as he maneuvered his sail and tiller with both hands and his feet.
Once we arrived at the spot, he took out his anchor, which consisted of a piece of coral the size of a football, tied to an old nylon rope. He handed me a coat hangar wire and explained how to “hook” the octopus. After putting on our masks and snorkels, we dropped over the edge of the canoe and swam around the reef, looking for octopus. As they are very well camouflaged, I knew that I would most probably be useless in actually seeing one, let alone ‘hooking’ it. I followed him around a bit then explored some other parts of the reef. There were of course hundreds of colourful fish swimming in and around the coral. Every minute or so I would pop my head up and look at that canoe, in the distance, thinking about the flimsy rope holding the rock anchor. If that rope broke, and the canoe drifted off in the wind, I wasn’t sure we would be able to catch it by swimming and we were a good three kilometres away from land. Despite how warm the turquoise the water was, I did not want to end my days found floating in a tropical lagoon. I decided I would meander around closer to the canoe. When Tekieri finally came back, he had two good sized octopus in his hand. We sailed back to the beach, he beat the octopus with a stick to tenderize them, and his wife came out half an hour later with the meat cooked in a coconut sauce with rice. It is still the best octopus I have ever eaten.